Restaurant Insights

Confidential Consumer’s trained field auditors share the secrets they’ve uncovered while “secret shopping” America’s Restaurants.

Research tells us that 96% of unhappy customers won’t complain to management about their experience – they simply won’t return to your establishment. Wouldn’t you rather know about those missteps so you can correct them?

Confidential Consumer has over 13 years of experience providing secret shopping services to restaurants. Our founder, Brian Mula-Howard, studied restaurant management and hospitality at Cornell University and spent years working in front line and management roles at several restaurants. He then leveraged that experience to found a secret shopping organization to measure and improve customer experiences surrounding the restaurant industry.

Over the course of tens of thousands of mystery shopping visits across the country, we have uncovered countless issues and unsung service heroes. Our clients have leveraged these insights to double and triple in size while maintaining high standards and loyal patrons. Our results have improved customer experiences and maintained loyal restaurant partnerships - some lasting over a decade.

To share some of our insights with interested restaurateurs, we reached out to our nationwide pool of 500,000 experienced mystery shoppers to glean some of their insights on restaurant experiences. Young, old, male, female, rural, urban – these experienced auditors have professionally evaluated their fair share of restaurants.

Friends and family recommendations carried more weight with older auditors (aged 51+), while those under 30 were more likely to find new restaurants by walking/driving by. Yelp and similar sites appealed disproportionately to auditors 40 and younger, and advertising had the strongest effect on those aged 61 and older.

So what keeps them coming back to a restaurant they love? For most, as you’d expect, it’s the food. When they love the food, they regularly return. But it’s not the only reason they return – great value for their money brings 20% back to their favorite establishment. Exceptional staff make people feel at home (7% of auditors) and provide outstanding service (7% of auditors), keeping our diners coming back for more.

Fantastic service is a stronger driver for those under age 30 than any other age group, whereas great value is a stronger draw for those over age 50. Great food is an exceptionally strong factor for those aged 30-50. So you can win with each age group by tailoring your marketing to them according to what they prioritize most – a personal connection with exceptional servers for the youngest, great value for their money for boomers, and fantastic food across the board.

Men and women differed in a few particular aspects of this question. Women were more likely to point to the food as the main reason for the return business, whereas men were more than twice as likely to cite the familiarity of being known and feeling at home at a restaurant as their key driver. Men were also more likely to cite pricing value as their main factor.

Our auditors, when dining out “on the clock” as they perform a mystery shop on an assigned restaurant, enter the restaurant with a thorough checklist of service steps to measure. While every restaurant has unique aspects of their service they may want to evaluate (like the use of branded salutations, specialty offerings like a Bloody Mary bar, or the handling of allergy notifications), most elements we evaluate are consistent across restaurant companies. Our auditors are trained to be perceptive about the smallest details of their experience.

We asked respondents about common restaurant experience problems, and whether (and how) they would inform management if they saw them. Only a few issues were considered significant enough that the majority would inform management immediately – namely that items are missing from their order (78% of auditors), the restroom is out of supplies (64%) or that the food was not made or served to their expectations (63%). While these issues would certainly make it into their mystery shopping report, they were also deemed significant enough be reported to the manager immediately – even when they visit a restaurant as a regular patron (vs. a contracted “shop”).

Many other service issues did not rise to the level of immediate management notification, and would likely only be brought to the manager’s attention via a mystery shopping report if auditors were on assignment: If staff did not look professional (81% of auditors), the exterior of the building had visible litter and debris (77%), the host/hostess seemed uninformed about restaurant basics like parking info, hours, etc. (77%), or the service was very slow (75%). These are critical issues that can impact satisfaction and future patronage; They are difficult to identify and solve without an active secret shopping program.

The service issues of greatest concern could be those subtle ones that auditors notice when dining that aren’t significant enough to bring to a manager’s attention – but are negative enough that diners are likely to share them with friends and family, or on public sites like Yelp. Given the large percentage of diners who learn about new restaurants from either friends/family or sites like Yelp, this negative word-of-mouth could have a considerable effect on new customer acquisition, but you may not even be aware there is an issue.

Our auditors also told us about a wide variety of anecdotal missteps they saw and heard while dining that they know management didn’t witness. Almost half cited service dissatisfaction with their wait staff – whether they were distracted by their phone while they should be assisting tables, using foul language in casual conversation (within earshot of diners), or just generally didn’t seem to care.

Other auditors noted too much honesty from their servers – a waitress to told them she thought all the food was nasty, or a bartender who said they leave off expensive ingredients unless corporate is there to see it. So your carefully designed customer experience may fall flat when poorly executed by front line staff.

These are all issues that can have a deeply damaging effect on diners’ perception of a restaurant and yet, without a secret shopping program, you may never hear about them until the damage is done. Management can only see so much – only a consistently executed secret shopping program can uncover the way your guests truly view your restaurant.

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